Metro Weekly

VA to Extend Benefits to Spouses of Deceased LGBTQ Veterans

VA seeks to remedy inequity that failed to recognize spouses unable to wed due to state bans on same-sex marriages.

A Department of Veterans Affairs hospital – Photo: Georgesheldon, via Dreamstime.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has announced it will extend survivor benefits to the surviving spouses of certain LGBTQ veterans, effective immediately.

In a press release, the VA announced its intention to close a gap in survivor benefits for survivors of LGBTQ veterans who were barred by law from wedding prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case, and who, therefore were not legally married to their now-deceased spouses long enough to qualify for survivor benefits. 

Because the extension of survivor benefits takes effect immediately, surviving spouses can begin applying for benefits as soon as they are eligible. The application for benefits can be accessed on the VA website

Prior to a Supreme Court ruling in 2013, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited same-sex marriages from being recognized as valid by the federal government, even if those marriages were performed in states where same-sex marriage was legal. After the ruling, the federal government would recognize marriages performed in states where same-sddex nuptials were legal, but those living in states with bans on same-sex marriage could not have their marriages recognized by the federal government.

Yet even following the Obergefell case two years later, after same-sex marriages were made legal, same-sex spouses were not credited with the time they had been together before the decision. As a result, some LGBTQ people died before they and their spouses had been legally married for the requisite period of time to qualify for survivors benefits. For instance, several spouses of same-sex couples whose relationships were never recognized due to bans on same-sex marriage have had to sue over denial of Social Security survivor benefits, with at least two federal courts ruling in favor of LGBTQ plaintiffs

For veterans, the requisite amount of time that a person must be married to be eligible for survivor benefits is one year, and a couple must have been married eight years for a surviving spouse to qualify for a higher rate of benefits.

While the benefits are not retroactive, the VA will begin counting the duration of a relationship from when the surviving spouse can establish proof of a “marriage-type” relationship, such as a commitment ceremony, a joint banking account, or jointly purchasing a house.

“VA is closing a gap in benefits for surviving spouses of LGBTQ+ Veterans, righting a wrong that is a legacy of the discriminatory federal ban on same-sex marriages,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said in a statement. “It is VA’s mission to serve all veterans — including LGTBQ+ veterans — as well as they’ve served our country, and this decision is a key part of that effort.”

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